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Laura Bradburn

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News broke today that the controversy surrounding West Ham outcast Dimitri Payet may finally be coming to a close.  With the Hammers confirming that a £25 million fee had been agreed with his former club Marseille, only a medical and agreement on personal terms await before the France international can return home.

The entire saga has dominated the January transfer window since Payet, a fan favourite at the London Olympic Stadium since arriving in 2015, allegedly went on strike on 10th January in an attempt to force the move.  Manager Slaven Bilic, speaking at the time, said, “We have said we don’t want to sell our best players but Payet does not want to play for us; he wants to leave,”.  Despite the player citing family reasons being the prime motivation for wanting to return to his homeland, Bilic maintained that he felt “angry” and “let down” by a player whom, only a year ago, signed a bumper 5 year extension to his contract after only 6 months in London.  In addition, the player received a £1 million ‘loyalty bonus’ in October; a thank-you for resisting the alleged advances of Europe’s great and good in the wake of his pivotal role in the France team that reached the final of Euro 2016 on home soil last summer.

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Payet has been a fan-favourite in London but his desire to return home has left many feeling betrayed.

Payet’s behaviour has left many Hammers fans feeling betrayed by a man in whom they placed much hope for the future.  To them, Payet represented a chance to build a team that could see the East End club break into the upper echelons of the Premier League.  His apparently sudden change of mind has left many fans feeling he has, in effect, held the club to ransom.  Bled them dry of finances and resource, only to turn and run when he chooses.  Even former player Trevor Sinclair took to Twitter to air his opinion on the debacle, calling Payet a ‘disgrace’ and saying he would have the player ‘doing triple sessions at Rush Green’ as punishment for his behaviour.

I must say, I find attitudes of that kind hypocritical at best and down-right narrow-minded at worst.  I’m firmly of the opinion that professional footballers, Payet included, owe the clubs they play for absolutely nothing.  Of course, the decision to go on strike would not be one I agree with but as for Payet wanting to leave, I see no issue with it.

Payet, like any person in any job I know, has taken the best deal he can get to do the job he is paid for.  If West Ham  and their fans are unhappy that he took the gargantuan sums they offered him, then maybe they should’ve considered offering less money or a shorter contract; that way, they wouldn’t perhaps be feeling quite so sensitive now.  In any case, given that Payet is reportedly taking a 25% pay-cut to return to his native land, it’s fair to say that finances have little to do with his decision-making process in this case.

Leaving aside finances for a moment, many feel Payet should remain loyal to West Ham for an, as yet, unspecified reason.  I’m afraid, yet again, I don’t really understand this train of thought.  The player did not grow up in London and therefore had no real emotional bond to the club before his arrival 18 months ago.  As hard as this may be for Hammers fans to hear, it’s likely he may not even have heard of the club before then.  The only two possible reasons he moved to East London were for financial gain and, possibly, to get the opportunity to test himself in the Premier League.  I doubt he’d have had any particular preference for West Ham over, say, Stoke or West Brom, if either of them had offered a more lucrative package.

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Payet starred for his country in last summer’s Euro 2016 tournament

The idea of loyalty in today’s game is one I struggle to reconcile with.  Though it has been particularly at the forefront of many fans’ ire in Payet’s dispute, it is a virtue most believe modern players should live their lives by.  Again, I struggle to see why this is the case.  Players, like us all, are human beings.  Find me one person, footballer or not, who would not move to another employer for more money to do the same job and I think you would struggle.  Then, of course, there is the fact that, as human beings, there may be non-footballing reasons to chose one club or another.  For Payet, it is the constant struggle to stay away from his young family that has seen his change of heart arise.  If that isn’t a good enough reason to want to leave a club and return home, I don’t know what is.

Let’s also not forget the fact that, in order to expect loyalty, it should be given in return.  Where fans are concerned, the demonstration of fidelity is something they most certainly expect from players towards clubs – but what about vice-versa?  While fans, chairmen and managers are quick to chastise players who show anything less than 100% dedication to the cause, is anything said in the reverse situation?  When players with many years of service to a club are told they ‘no longer feature in the manager’s plans’, are there thousands calling their treatment unjust?  Rarely.  In that case, it’s seen for exactly what it is; an unfortunate but necessary part of every club’s process for moving forward.  Why should a player’s attitude towards the progression of their own career be any different to a club’s desire to move forward with different personnel?

Dimitri Payet has borne the brunt of the scorn dished out by West Ham fans feeling hurt and let down.  Yes, he may have handled himself with less decorum than one might expect in his desire to force a move.  Yes, striking when you are being handsomely financially rewarded could be seen as morally questionable.  But taking it a step further and saying he’s entirely wrong to want to leave at all?  I’m afraid that’s where I have to disagree.  We, as football fans, like to think our clubs are as important to the players who pull on the shirts as they are to us.  We think that, just because we’d give anything to be in their place, they should be grateful to be there and pay us back in kind.  We have an unbreakable bond with our team.  A bond that has taken us years to build, yet one we expect them to develop in a matter of months.  Like it or not, professional footballers work for the same reasons we all do.  They deserve to be able to make as much financial gain from their short careers as possible and, in events where that isn’t the motivation, make decisions that will benefit themselves best, above all others.  Clubs and fans behave in exactly that manner – players should be afforded the same luxury.

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